Could reading a good book make you a better person? In a time in which our bestsellers include horrific deaths (e.g. Game of Thrones) and erotic sadomasochism (e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey), this idea may seem far-fetched.
Still, numerous scientific studies suggest that reading fiction may help you to become more empathic and pro-social.
Reading fiction: living someone else’s life
If you ask an avid reader about their favourite fictional character, they are likely to engulf you in a passionate description of the character’s appearance, actions, and values. It might even seem as if they are talking about a real person they know and care about. In fact, some readers feel so close to the story’s protagonist that they experience reading a book as living the character’s life. This notion gave scientists the idea of exploring how reading fiction influences our development and interactions with real people. It turns out that there may be quite some benefits to be had from losing your heart to Mr Darcy or attending the extravagant parties of The Great Gatsby.
Reading fiction improves empathy
One of the benefits of reading fiction is that it can improve the ability to empathize with others. Various studies have shown an association between reading fictional stories and the development of empathy in children. In addition, one study showed that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people's emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships. These findings suggest that there is an important relation between the empathy one feels for fictional characters and the ability to empathize with real people.
How is reading fiction related to empathy?
But how exactly is reading fiction related to empathy? To understand this, researchers have related two different aspects of fiction reading (i.e. life-time exposure to fictional stories, and the experience of being transported by a story) to two different aspects of empathy: cognitive empathy (the ability to understand the world from another’s perspective, and to infer beliefs and intentions) and affective empathy (the capacity to share another’s feelings and emotions). The results showed that life-time exposure to fictional texts is associated with cognitive empathy, whereas the experience of being transported by a story is associated with affective empathy. In other words: the frequency with which you read fictional texts is associated with understanding other people’s perspectives and beliefs, whereas the degree to which you delve into the story is associated with sharing other people’s feelings and emotions.
Reading fiction improves pro-social behaviour
We now know that reading fiction enhances our ability to empathize with others. However, this is not the only benefit associated with losing yourself in a great novel. Actually, reading fiction is assumed to have a range of social benefits through its association with empathy. For example, empathy is associated with the ability to build and maintain successful relationships, the ability to cooperate and the ability to understand how or why others react to situations, and it may help us to make informed decisions. In addition, people who are good at empathizing with others are less likely to be aggressive or to engage in delinquent behaviour. Finally, the amount of affective empathy (i.e. how much one shares another’s feelings and emotions) one feels while reading fiction has been associated with subsequent helping tendencies in real life, such as helping orphans by means of supporting a charity, and picking up an object that someone has dropped.
Does it matter what book you choose?
If you now feel inclined to rush off to the bookstore and get to work on your social and empathizing skills, one question remains: does it matter what book you choose to read? In fact, this does appear to be the case. In a series of five experiments including 1000 participants, researchers showed that literary fiction is more successful in enhancing perspective-taking than most popular fiction. According to the researchers, this has to do with the fact that literary fiction requires the reader to use a more active and participative reading style (and more perspective-taking) than most types of popular fiction, in which the author dictates the reader’s experience.
It is time to dust off your bookshelf!
In conclusion, reading fiction may help us to become a better person, because it can enhance our ability to feel for others and to take their perspective. This, in turn, may help us to successfully navigate our social world and may open our eyes for others in need. So, if you are looking to improve your social and empathizing skills: dust off your bookshelf and lose yourself in the life of someone else. However, for this to be effective, you might prefer being courted by Mr Darcy to swooning over Mr Christian Grey.